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February 28, 2012 12:18 am

National Health Assessment Results Encourage Better Habits Among Students

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Meghan Root, the Health Center’s Sexual Assault and Wellness Advocate, presented the results of the National College Health Assessment II (NCHA) at the St. Mary’s Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Feb. 7. NCHA is a survey organized by the American College Health Association that was conducted amongst St. Mary’s students in the spring semester of 2011 to gather “data on students’ habits, behaviors, and perceptions on prevalent health topics,” according to the Root’s presentation.

The NCHA was last conducted at St. Mary’s in the spring semester of 2009, and the comparison of the data from 2011 and 2009 shows how St. Mary’s students have seemingly changed their habits in certain areas. One positive change was the decrease in cigarette use in both males and females, which has lowered by at least seven percent.

In response to the survey’s findings, Root said “nothing stood out as a huge problem, but for me it’s always the sex safety precautions that are worrying; for example, withdrawal is still used as a contraception method by 30 percent of those who took the survey.”

In the past year, 26 percent of sexually active students reported that they or their partners used emergency contraception, such as the Plan B pill; in 2009, this percentage was only nine percent. This worried Linda Wallace, Director of Health Services, who said that students should be aware that the Health Center does “provide regular birth control pills, which I don’t think many students know, and we promote condom use,” two methods that can reduce the risk of needing to use emergency contraception. Root also urged students to take careful precautions when sexually active, as “long-term effects of emergency contraception increase the risk for cancer and ectopic pregnancies.”

Also a concern for Root was the combination of anxiety, sleep, and depression that can be crippling to new students. “Thankfully, the rate of these issues are not higher than at other colleges, but it’s still something we need to work on,” said Root. Approximately 53 percent of those surveyed said they were under more than average stress in the last year, higher than the 43 percent national average; however, this last percentage also represented the majority of students.

“It’s a lack of a skill in managing work,” said Root. “The next step is to do things differently with a new perspective on how to balance your time.” Wallace said that this chronic stress can “diminish the immune system, and lead to bad eating and sleeping habits. Students need to control their behaviors in all of these areas in order to lessen stress.”

Wallace was also concerned about the fairly low response rate to the survey: “We had a 10 percent response rate [150 people], but these findings certainly address trends. For one, allergies have become an issue because of the environment we live in. First-years and other newcomers don’t realize that their symptoms are allergic reactions, because we live in a very allergy-inducing area.”

Students at St. Mary’s also saw urinary tract infections (UTI’s) land on the list of the most common illnesses on campus. “The frequency of UTI’s makes me think we should talk to students about it,” said Wallace, “and make them aware that it is sometimes related to sexual activity.”

The percentage of St. Mary’s students who have driven after consuming alcohol has risen: 20 percent of students reported doing so in 2011, up from 15.5 percent in 2009, while almost five percent said they had driven after having at least five drinks, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. This is a highly shocking statistic that cannot be directly helped by the Health Center, as it is common knowledge that it is severely dangerous to drink and drive.

Both Root and Wallace are baffled by this trend. “I am very concerned about the rise in that number, especially since Safe Ride is used so actively,” said Root. “I am curious to know where students are driving to after they have consumed alcohol. It will be interesting to see where those numbers end up in the 2013 survey since the creation of the late-night food option of the Pub.

“We are aware of the continuing alcohol-related concerns but I wonder how we can make an impact on student behavior given the fact that students are aware of the fact that drinking and driving is a risky choice,” added Wallace. “I know Meghan [Root] and the Peer Health Educators work hard on alcohol education and the impact of student choices regarding drinking behaviors.”

Wallace is hopeful that students will take the opportunity to educate themselves about the on-campus healthcare options that are available to them. “Students are learning how to be more healthcare-savvy when it comes to deciding when they can be helped using over-the-counter products and when it’s necessary to see a doctor,” she explained. “College is a learning curve in how to take care of yourself independently, and to become a good healthcare consumer who knows how to seek treatment and pay for it.”

“We just want a healthier campus,” added Root. “We want to reduce sexual violence and increase self-care in general, and help students engage in behaviors that help them find success through anxiety-reducing perspectives and sexual responsibility.”

In spite of all the resources that the Health Center offers, it is ultimately up to the students to take care of themselves and decide to use these resources. “There’s no enabling here,” Root explained, “and we don’t force our help down your throat; students need to recognize their health issues on their own.”

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